What is Milibandism?

A leading conservative thinker says it's time for the right to take the Labour leader seriously.

Miliband: a man deeply torn between pragmatism and radicalism. Artwork: David Simonds

For two years he has been treated as a joke in the Westminster village. But it’s time to take Ed Miliband seriously. Labour is riding high at 45 per cent in the polls. If there was a general election tomorrow, Prime Minister Miliband (there, I said it) would have a majority of more than 100 seats.

Although the modern electorate is volatile, there are big structural reasons why “Ed M” has a good chance of becoming PM. No sitting prime minister has increased his or her share of the vote since 1974. The creation of the coalition in effect reversed the SDP-Labour split, uniting the left in one party for the first time since 1981. By contrast, coalition has fragmented the right. The UK Independence Party is likely to get a further boost from elections for the European Parliament scheduled less than a year before the next general election in 2015.

Many think that a Tory government plus cuts will be enough to equal Labour victory. And David Cameron’s task is made much harder by coalition, which restricts his freedom to manoeuvre. The Lib Dems would veto things that the Tories might have done to fight back: populist moves on crime, human rights or Europe are off the menu, while Lib Dem obsessions such as Lords reform take up valuable time for Cameron. That, plus the Leveson inquiry, the euro’s expiry, City sleaze and the economic squeeze could all easily put Ed in No 10.

What would he do if elected? What is “Mili­bandism”? It’s difficult to say, and there is a reason for that. Miliband is a man deeply torn between pragmatism and radicalism, and his unique personal journey helps explain why.

Imagine that Cameron leaves Downing Street and a new Tory leader is elected. It is hard to figure out the new guy, because for years he was a loyal aide in the Cameron government. He won mainly because he was prepared to throw red meat to the right, which allowed him to outflank a more moderate opponent. And his personal background is very unusual. His father, Roger Scruton, was one of the leading thinkers of the right who relentlessly denounced the Conservative Party as a bunch of traitors, hopelessly in thrall to the left-wing establishment. Yet his son still ended up working for the party.

His mother was an ideological warrior in a different way, well known as a leading light in the Countryside Alliance and Migration Watch. Right-wing MPs and thinkers were always popping into the family home. After his GCSEs, the new leader did a brief stint working for John Redwood, then he joined a right-wing magazine in America, and then he went to an Oxford college where he could study with one of his father’s friends, the ultra-Thatcherite economist Tim Congdon. Yet half the time he talks about tacking to the centre.

This story sounds bizarre. Yet it is the early life of Ed Miliband, in mirror image. For Scruton, read Ralph Miliband. For the Countryside Alliance, read CND; for Redwood, Tony Benn; and for Congdon, the Marxist Andrew Glyn.

If you wanted to write a hatchet job on “Red Ed”, you’d never be short of ammo. His student room apparently contained no posters, just a postcard of the Trotskyist historian and cricket writer C L R James. His father travelled to Marx’s grave to make a fist-clenched oath to defend socialism. It’s all pretty lefty. And, according to his biographers Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre, he is “Thatcheresque in his ambition”, his goal nothing less than a decisive break with the neoliberal consensus of the past 30 years.

So, will Britain elect its first socialist PM since Harold Wilson? Should the bankers – whom Miliband memorably described last year as “predators” – get their helicopters revving on the roof now, ready to evacuate them to Geneva?

But it is not as simple as the “Red Ed” tag suggests. The adult Ed helped draw up Labour’s 1997 manifesto promise to stick to Tory spending plans. Although he didn’t like the Iraq war, he was not an MP at the time of the invasion in 2003 and did not have to make difficult choices over whether to resign or not. Though a Brownite, he was selected as the “emissary from Planet Fuck” who could actually talk to Blairites without swearing.

Then again, it isn’t as simple as saying that he grew up on the left but then turned New Labour. Arguably the most interesting phase of Ed’s development is the period since the financial crisis and the Brownites’ failure to form a clear programme once they finally got control of Downing Street.

His story could keep a psychologist busy for years. Just think: your beloved father warns you that Labour are a bunch of sell-outs. You ignore him, and after the 1997 election it looks like you were right. But subsequent events might make it look (to someone who grew up on the left) like Labour were in hock to high finance and Rupert Murdoch all along. So what now, if Dad was right?

Ed’s actions as Labour leader seem to swing wildly between socialist rhetoric and Blairite pragmatism. Harold Wilson once likened the Labour Party to a bus: if you let it slow down, everyone would get off and bicker about where to go. Today the metaphorical bus seems to be lurching, tyres squealing, between the fast lane and the hard shoulder. I had thought this merely the result of different factions and advisers trying to yank the steering wheel around during the period when Miliband’s leadership was under siege. However, on reflection, I think the strange veering around is the result of a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde conflict raging within Ed himself. It also reflects the problem that Gordon Brown never resolved: you might not like New Labour, but if you have more radical instincts, how do you turn them into workable policies?

So, how would Milibandism be different from Blairism? We have a few outlines but they are not very solid. For example, Ed has a long-standing preference for a graduate tax, rather than the student fees and loans that Labour introduced. Ed didn’t like it at the time, but ending variable fees and moving to a one-size-fits-all tax would hike costs for those on cheap courses, in order to subsidise those on more expensive ones – like Robin Hood in reverse. Even Ed’s first shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, said that it was “difficult to make a graduate tax a workable proposition”.

Another important plank of his leadership campaign was the “living wage”. Since 2001 the campaign group Citizens UK has been encouraging companies to pay more than the minimum wage (£8.30 rather than £5.93 an hour in London). But, with the idea cast in those terms, politicians from all parties have been able to endorse it, including Cameron and Boris Johnson. During his leadership campaign, Ed suggested going further and offering a tax break for companies paying the living wage, yet tax breaks for firms with no low-wage employees would transfer cash to businesses with mostly high-paid employees – such as investment banks. Whoops! Firms could also get the tax break by outsourcing their low-wage employment. Opportunities for manipulation would be rife, which may explain why we have heard no more of the idea since spring 2011.

Miliband’s focus on the “squeezed middle” is more interesting. Median average wages for men have been stagnating for a decade. The effort to understand this phenomenon and find solutions is being spearheaded by a newly created think tank, the Resolution Foundation, led by the former Brown aide Gavin Kelly. It is the most tangible sign of intellectual renewal on the left so far. But finding answers to the problem won’t be easy. Simply jacking up the minimum wage could induce higher unemployment, according to the Low Pay Commission. Some on the left are toying with a slightly higher rate for older workers; it is unclear what Ed thinks of this yet.

Others on the left think stronger trade unions are the answer. The problem is that the unions are strong in all the wrong places: in the well-paid public sector, rather than lower-paid areas such as hospitality and cleaning. Perhaps Ed could shake off the perception that he is owned by the unions by challenging them to reshape themselves?

What about Blue Labour, the attempt to combine left-wing economics with social conserva­tism? The “blue” label has been abandoned since Maurice Glasman decided to bazooka Ed in a New Statesman article in January this year (he memorably complained that Ed had “no strategy, no narrative and little energy”). But the appointment of another leading Blue Labourite, Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham, as the new head of Labour’s policy review suggests the agenda is alive and well. Following Cruddas’s instatement, Ed has apologised for Labour’s record on immigration and talked about “Englishness”.

However, the danger is that, without a clear policy, voters will dismiss this as positioning. Reminding voters about immigration without making any commitment to reduce numbers in the future may just emphasise a Labour weak spot. And the new toughness on migration doesn’t sound very authentic coming from Miliband: if he were running for US president, his family’s success story as refugees would be the embodiment of the American dream. Well – minus the “Marxist dad” bit, anyway.

Ed’s sincerest moments of passion have come over spending cutbacks and George Osborne’s decision to cut the top rate of income tax in the recent Budget. “Wrong priorities – same old Tories!” he yelled gleefully across the despatch box. But he hasn’t said that he would raise the top rate of tax, and his own economic policy is pretty sketchy.

His calls for “a modern industrial strategy” make political sense. After all, the voters love manufacturing and hate the banks (boo, hiss). But is it distinctive? Osborne has also called for a “modern industrial policy” (spot the difference) and has been busy making investments in new technologies such as graphene, next-generation satellites and supercomputing. The Labour peer Andrew Adonis has recently been coaxed back to look into industrial policy, yet it remains to be seen whether there is anything original to say about it.

Above all, Ed needs to explain what Labour is for when there isn’t going to be lots of money to spend. As Aneurin Bevan told the 1949 Labour conference: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” One option would be for Labour to set out how its spending priorities would differ from the Tories’ within a tight overall spending constraint – but that means proposing which areas of expenditure should be cut back.

For a moment in January, that seemed to be the plan. First Liam Byrne, the then head of Labour’s policy review, wrote an article calling for an “overhaul” of the welfare state and suggesting the benefits system had “skewed social behaviour” and provided too much “unearned support”. Ed gave a speech saying that, “in these times, with less money, spending more on one thing means finding the money from somewhere else”. And Ed Balls used a letter to the Guardian to announce his support for the government’s freeze in top public-sector salaries.

It was a good start – but it triggered a near-nuclear response from several of the big unions, including a threat by the GMB to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Within days, Balls was back to stressing that the cuts were “too far and too fast”. And Byrne was left exposed to attacks from the left; in the Financial Times, Jim Pickard even reported that he had fallen out with Mili­band over the issue.

The strategic push to set priorities was failing, but Ed was saved by the bell: the row over the National Health Service turned the spotlight on Cameron, and the “omnishambles” following the Budget kept it there. That was lucky for Ed, but it strengthened the hand of those who think that the party should just rely on the coalition screwing up.

That sort of thinking could be catastrophic for Ed in the long term. Since the January offensive, shadow ministers have racked up tens of billions in additional spending commitments on everything from child benefit and tax credits to transport, the Education Main­tenance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance. We can be sure that, somewhere in the Treasury, these pledges are being totted up. The coalition are rubbing their hands at the prospect of a straight rerun of the 1992 “tax bombshell” campaign.

Ironically for a former policy wonk, Ed has not focused enough on policy. It’s true that what voters notice are the broad brushstrokes, not the detail, yet policy needs to be robust. If an election were held tomorrow, several of Lab­our’s current policy ideas would unravel on live TV, falling apart as easily as the door handles off an Austin Allegro.

Labour’s position is hardly invulnerable, either. Formal or informal co-operation between the coalition partners could hurt the party badly at the next election. It will be two-on-one in the debates. The coalition’s whole strategy is based on riding an economic dip, and the election is still three years away. The Tories have finally resolved a debilitating internal row about what their message should be. A voter-friendly focus on jobs and the cost of living has displaced the “big society”.

The coalition has plenty of opportunities to put Ed on the wrong side of arguments about welfare reform. Which way would he jump if the coalition announced new caps on benefit spending? The coalition will surely paint him as a sort of Gordon Brown Mk II, who doesn’t “get” real Britain, can’t take decisions, and sides with “the shirkers, not the workers”.

To avoid this, Labour needs much greater clarity about what it stands for. Just think about the 1997 campaign. Five early pledges. No more boom and bust. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. And the top priority: education, education, education.

The slogans are easy to recall even 15 years on. In contrast, not many voters could say what Miliband stands for. He is in danger of getting caught in the middle: neither neutralising the attacks that will come from the right, nor providing a new and distinctive left-leaning programme to shift the centre ground.

His split-personality dilemma needs to be resolved soon. Sitting in focus groups this year, I have been struck by the hostility voters now feel towards all politicians. Unfortunately for Ed, he is seen as a lifelong member of the poli­tical class, to which the struggles of working people are unfamiliar: “You spend your time at Oxford, then spend time being a research assistant for someone in parliament . . . It’s all out of a book, isn’t it?” Ed even gets described as a “public school boy”, someone who’s just as posh as David Cameron. I have been told in one focus group that he went to Eton.

It’s not true, of course, but over time a powerful belief has grown up that Labour has become quite similar to the Conservative Party. There is great cynicism that it would do things differently if elected. The party’s support among working-class voters fell 20 per cent between 1997 and 2010, compared to just 7 per cent among middle-class voters. Labour used to be for the working classes, people say – but it isn’t any more.

So far, Miliband’s leadership hasn’t come anywhere near dispelling this, though asking the shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett to look into the declining numbers of working-class MPs was a smart move.

With the electorate in an extremely grumpy place, there is huge scope for a populist campaigner to make inroads. As yet, Ed is not that man. He still has lots of time. But will he use the midterm bounce he is experiencing as an opportunity to duck, or to embrace difficult decisions? Underlying everything is a bigger question of who Ed wants to be. The heir to his father and the great breaker of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus? Or just a slightly leftier version of Tony Blair?

For some reason, I can’t help thinking of The King’s Speech. The smooth, glamorous, well-connected elder sibling has been dumped in favour of the younger brother. Although he has great passions battling inside him, he struggles to express himself, or rally the troops. After years as number two, it’s Ed who has the microphone now, and the attention of the nation. Yet as we listen to the static hum and the silence starts to lengthen, we are left wondering: does he actually have anything to say for himself? Can he find his voice?